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Jimmie Johnson's Sprint Cup streak is nearing the finish line

The driver who won a record five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships is sixth in the Chase standings and 55 points behind leader Carl Edwards with two races remaining.

November 07, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Five-time reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson speaks with crew members in the garage during practice for the AAA Texas 500 on Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Five-time reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson speaks with… (Brandon Wade / Getty Images…)

It's a winning streak that both awed and alienated, one that seemed improbable at times and destined at others.

Now Jimmie Johnson's astonishing record of five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships is about to end.

Johnson probably will be dethroned by either Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart, the last driver to win the Cup title before Johnson began his historic march in 2006.

Stewart won Sunday's race in Texas and trails Edwards by only three points with two races left in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff: at Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday and Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway on Nov. 20.

Johnson finished 14th in Texas and now is sixth in the Chase standings, a distant 55 points behind Edwards. Although not yet mathematically eliminated, Johnson by all probability is done.

During his streak, Johnson arrived in Phoenix each fall either with the points lead or with a bona fide chance of seizing it. In three consecutive years, 2007-2009, Johnson won the Phoenix race to all but secure the championship.

But even if he wins again on the one-mile Phoenix oval and then wins in Homestead-Miami, it's still unlikely he would be able to vault past Edwards, Stewart and the other Chase leaders for a sixth Sprint Cup.

"We just have not finished the races off like we needed to, to stay in contention," Johnson said before the Texas race. "It is disappointing to say the least."

So it's worth pausing a moment to appreciate Johnson's dynasty of the last five years, which surpassed the previous NASCAR record of three consecutive titles set by Cale Yarborough in the late 1970s.

Johnson's achievement was especially notable because, midway through the feat, NASCAR rolled out a completely different race car, the so-called Car of Tomorrow. Every team initially struggled to adapt to the car, but Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team mastered it better than most and he kept winning.

Yet the prowess of Johnson, his No. 48 Chevrolet and his team became so daunting that a good many NASCAR fans grew tired of his streak.

In 2009 and 2010, especially, as NASCAR's once-surging popularity flattened, many observers pointed to Johnson's winning habit — along with the driver's even-keeled and, some would say, boring, persona — as contributing to some fans' waning interest. Even Chase contender Kevin Harvick said a year ago that "no offense to him, but somebody else needs to win [the title]."

Now they'll probably get their wish, and if anyone is prepared to see Johnson's streak end, it's Johnson.

He was at peace with the prospect a year ago when he was second in the Chase to Denny Hamlin with two races left. But Johnson finished strong, Hamlin stumbled and Johnson claimed title No. 5.

To put Johnson's streak into context, Hamlin, who turns 31 next week, is in his sixth full year in the Cup series, has won 17 races and is among the sport's established stars. Yet he has seen only one champion crowned — Johnson.

A driver who cut his teeth as an off-road racer, Johnson might not have the brash personality of other NASCAR drivers, but the streak proved he's been arguably the sport's fiercest, most focused competitor of the last decade.

It's difficult to compare Johnson's feat with those achieved by other legendary athletes, including Tiger Woods in golf, Lance Armstrong in cycling and Roger Federer in tennis, to name only a few.

Those truly are individual sports, whereas Johnson requires the help of crew chief Chad Knaus, the rest of his pit team and dozens of Hendrick employees to build his race cars.

Knaus' role, in fact, can't be overestimated when looking at Johnson's achievement. Knaus is one of the shrewdest and hardest-working crew chiefs in the business, possessing a skill set that often gave Johnson an edge. Among other things, the intense Knaus (pronounced ke-nouse) is known for probing every gray area in NASCAR's rule book to gain speed for Johnson's cars, a risky venture that more than once has gotten Knaus suspended for breaking those rules.

Johnson and Knaus "are great at communicating," which means "getting really detailed and accurate information from the driver and applying that to the car," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion and Johnson's teammate.

Perhaps a better comparison could be made with John Force, the drag racer who won 10 consecutive NHRA titles in 1993-2002 and 15 overall, or with Michael Schumacher, who won a record seven championships in Formula One racing.

Regardless, Johnson's streak has placed him squarely in any debate about which driver is the best in NASCAR history — and he's not done. Johnson is 36 and still in his prime racing years. Stewart is 40, as is Gordon, who's eighth in the Chase this year. Edwards is 32.

"Yes, we are going to be disappointed if we are not the champion" this year, Johnson said. "I don't want to see the streak end, nor does my team, but if it does, it does and we have to learn from it and go on."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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